There is much to celebrate in Lawrence’s history, but our local history is also fraught with violence and racism. Fortunately, the past can teach us lessons as we strive to make our community equal for everyone today.
In the early morning of June 10, 1882, a mob of Lawrencians descended on the local jail, removed four prisoners, and hanged three of them from the Kansas River Bridge. The three men lynched were George Robertson, Isaac King, and Peter Vinegar. The fourth prisoner, 14-year-old Margaret “Sis” Vinegar, was spared execution but later died in prison.
As in thousands of such incidents during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the four victims were Black, the lynch mob was white, and the message the mob conveyed to the local Black community was one of terror and oppression.
For years, the story of these four deaths remained a quiet burden on the community, remembered among many Lawrence African Americans but largely omitted from the telling of the city’s history.
Recently, several local groups formed a partnership to confront and memorialize this tragic event. The Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project (CRP), was organized in 2019 as an affiliate of the Equal Justice Initiative, headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama.
The CRP hosts programs to address Lawrence/Douglas County’s history of racial injustice and amplifies community events that promote social justice. In 2021, CRP organized events to restore the dignity of the lost lives, including a graveside service and a soil collection ceremony. These events brought community members together to publicly mourn the four 1882 victims for the first time, and acknowledge the generational trauma caused by the lynching.
From Feb. 25 through August 19, the Watkins Museum of History — one of the partners in the CRP — will host an exhibit, Confronting the Past: The Douglas County Community Remembrance Project, telling the stories of the lynching and memorialization.
The first in a series of events planned in connection with the exhibit will occur at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26. Inspired by the Equal Justice Initiative’s suggestions on getting communities involved in commemoration, the Watkins will partner with the Free State Festival and the CRP to host a screening of the acclaimed film Just Mercy.
This screening at the Lawrence Arts Center will be free, but registration is required. Visit this link to secure your tickets.
— Will Haynes is Director of Engagement and Learning at the Watkins Museum of History.
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More coverage: Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project
“On that Saturday morning by the Kansas River, as soil was scooped into glass jars and carnations placed on top of each, a spirit moved among the crowd. They had gathered there, near Lawrence City Hall, to commemorate the victims of a lynching nearly 140 years ago,” Clay Wirestone writes in this column for Kansas Reflector.
Though a final answer is likely still a few months away, work began Monday to solve a question that originated just over 139 years ago: where are the three Black men lynched in Lawrence in the summer of 1882 buried? One Kansas researcher is using ground penetrating radar technology to find out.